Historical carbon offset hopes dim

Farmers moved increasingly toward less tillage for the last three decades. | File photo

The Saskatchewan environment ministry will hold another round of consultations on agricultural carbon offsets this fall, but the chances are slim that farmers who began sequestering carbon decades ago will be able to participate in a carbon market.

Ministry spokesperson Delaney Boyd told recent Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities division meetings that the concept of doing more than what is considered the norm, or additionality, is a basic tenet of program development.

“We can design the program any way we want as a province, but if we want the credits that are produced to be robust … basically we want them to be worth something … that’s kind of the pinch point right there,” she said during a virtual question and answer session.

“In order for them to be perceived as worth something they have to align with the rules that have been established for offset programs that are forming up both nationally but also internationally.”

She said there could be other practices that aren’t seen as meeting additionality requirements, not just zero tillage.

“If we want to have more (greenhouse gas) removed from the atmosphere, then we have to be doing activities that are creating that more, not the ones that are getting us to that baseline,” she said.

In one sense, zero tillage is a victim of its own success. Farmers moved increasingly toward less tillage for the last three decades.

Offset programs will be looking for credits that regulated emitters can purchase to offset their own emissions. The offset credit start date is Jan. 1, 2018, and the adoption rate threshold is 40 percent.

Boyd said this doesn’t mean that farmers using zero-till aren’t sequestering carbon, but that emitters won’t want to buy credits unless they are worth something.

“I realize that that’s not satisfying, but the offset program is very narrow. There’s quite a narrow sliver of, ultimately, what we’ll be able to recognize under it and it isn’t just zero till that falls into this category,” she said.

SARM president Ray Orb said members are concerned about how the offset program for farmers is being developed.

Division directors, delivering similar speeches across the province, said Ottawa doesn’t appear to value agricultural carbon offsets.

“Most of the farmers in our province will not qualify to sell into an offset market unless organizations like SARM and the Saskatchewan Soil Conservation Association can convince the federal government otherwise,” said Division 4 director Harvey Malanowich.

Boyd said the summaries of the consultations that concluded in April will soon be available and the government has committed to another formal set in September.

Meanwhile, livestock producers are also awaiting an offset protocol for grassland.

“When we look at net carbon sinks and what native grassland does for this province as a benefit to the province for carbon capture, that needs to be recognized heavily,” said Saskatchewan Stock Growers Association president Kelcy Elford during that organization’s recent annual general meeting.

Agriculture minister David Marit told that meeting the work continues.

“At the end of the day it’s going to have to be something that has value and the challenge around that now is, what is that value and what are the heavy emitters willing to pay,” Marit said. “You’re right. Native prairie is a huge carbon sink, and it’s just how we value that and how respectful the industry is of it, and governments too.”

The farming and ranching protocols are the first two for agriculture that the government expects to be in place sometime in 2022. However, others are likely to follow.

Two others currently in development are a landfill methane capture and combustion protocol and an aerobic composting protocol.

Boyd said the landfill protocol involves converting methane through combustion to release it as carbon dioxide. Even though carbon dioxide is also a greenhouse gas it has lower warming potential than methane, she said.

“Some facilities are capturing it and converting it to renewable natural gas and selling that to the pipeline, (which is) even better in that sense because then we’re using cleaner renewable natural gas,” she said. “That might be covered under separate regulations outside the offset program but it’s still part of the greater net zero strategy.”

The composting protocol will involve managing the gases that come off of that process.

Boyd added that these two protocols are taking some precedence because other jurisdictions are also proceeding.

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